Technicalities: Lifetime Achievement

Peter Garrison’s first article in Flying, 50 years ago, was about photographing on, and from, the ground. Flying

I kept reminding myself, late last summer, that I had to let the editor of Flying's back page, Bethany Whitfield, know that the first article I ever wrote for Flying had appeared in the December 1965 issue, and, therefore, would qualify for mention in the "50 Years Ago" slot in the December 2015 issue. Given the production schedule of this magazine, I would have to let her know sometime around September — but not too much earlier than that, lest it slip her mind.

In the end, it slipped mine, and this milestone — or roadside pebble — passed unheralded.

That first article, which ran in a long since discontinued column called “Flying Photographer,” consisted of prosaic advice about photographing airplanes at airports. I submitted it “over the transom,” as we used to say when there were still transom windows in this world, and they bought it. My first feature article did not appear until October 1968 — so there is still a chance to get into that “50 Years Ago” column, if I can just remember to let Bethany know. It was titled “The Ultimate Engine” and concerned man-powered flight. At that time the Kremer prize of 50,000 pounds for flying a figure-of-eight course around two pylons half a mile apart had not been won, and, in fact, the airplane that would take it in 1977, Paul MacCready’s Gossamer Condor, had not even been conceived. The title, I now think, was silly. A man can hardly be the ultimate engine; he might be a primordial one.

At the time I wrote that article I was, to paraphrase George Orwell’s book title, down and out in London and Paris. Chronically short of money, but equipped with a rented typewriter on which I pecked away at artsy novels that would never be published, I thought I would try my hand at magazine writing. I had learned to fly a few years earlier, and I knew one or two things about aeronautics.

I found out about a fellow at the Royal Aircraft Establishment — now called the Royal Aerospace Establishment — at Farnborough who had some ideas about man-powered flight, and I took a train down to talk with him. In his basement he showed me a model of an ornithopter that he had conceived. Unlike most ornithopters, which are generally both built and operated by cranks and resemble birds or bats, his looked exactly like a high-performance sailplane.

His idea was an ingenious one: The small elliptical movements of the wingtips needed for propulsion would be augmented by flutter — not uncontrollably destructive flutter but, in technical language, a “limit cycle oscillation.” The trick would be to design a wing structure that would perform birdlike wing beats of very small amplitude when it vibrated, but that would damp them sufficiently so that a small triggering exertion by the human pilot — the primordial engine — would be required to keep it shaking.

It was an elegant idea but very difficult, perhaps impossible, to put into practice. MacCready had a simpler one: An airplane sufficiently large, light and slow-moving, and of sufficient wingspan, would have so little drag, both parasite and induced, that the output of one-third horsepower that an athletic pilot could sustain for a long period would be able to overcome it.

While I waited in Victoria Station for the train to Farnborough, I picked up a copy of a slender magazine called Pilot & Light Aeroplane. A young life is packed with fateful moments; they become much less frequent later.

I typed out three articles, one on man-powered flight and two on other subjects, and sent them off, one to Flying, one to another American magazine, either Plane and Pilot or Private Pilot, I forget which, and the third to this same Pilot & Light Aeroplane. All three were accepted. The executive editor at Flying, Stephan Wilkinson, had gone to Harvard, as I had; perhaps it was that, as much as my limpid prose, that moved him to suggest that I submit again. Soon I was writing regularly for Flying, and I have done so ever since.

I also went in to see the editor of Pilot & Light Aeroplane, Brian Healey. The article he had bought concerned an airplane I had been building in the Naval Training Center workshop in San Diego, where I spent my 21-month military career as a Navy draftee. (It was during the Vietnam War, and voluntary enlistments sometimes came up short.)

He hired me as a staff writer at 18 pounds a week, and, more impressed than he should have been by a snapshot of the partial airframe that was gathering dust in Los Angeles, he proposed that I design an airplane suitable for amateur constructors in England. His scheme was that the magazine would publish the design in installments while I actually built the airplane in a shop window beneath the tracks on some busy street near Victoria Station. As undaunted by my complete lack of qualifications for such a project as Healey was by its fiscal impracticality, I agreed.

Several pleasant months followed. I designed, and the magazine began publishing drawings. I spent a lot of time at the library of the Royal Aeronautical Society, nestled in a red leather chair with a stack of technical reports in my lap. I went down to the Tiger Club at Redhill Aerodrome, south of London, to fly Tiger Moth biplanes. I became friends with a French couple, Daniel and Mégalée Odier, and in May — it was 1968 — we listened together, full of envy, to radio reports from Paris of the student uprising there. Daniel arranged to interview the Beat novelist William Burroughs for a French paperback publisher. Knowing little English — the only word I remember him uttering was "obviously," which he pronounced "obiouvsly" — he enlisted me to conduct the interviews, using questions he supplied, and then to translate the result back into my version of French. I accomplished the last part of this project, not uncomfortably, beside his father's swimming pool on the Côte d'Azur. The book emerged with the title The Job — not, certainly, a reference to my part in it, which went uncredited. Odier would later write, under the pseudonym Delacorta, the novel upon which a film I like, Diva, is based; move for a while to Tulsa, Oklahoma, of all places; and then transform himself into an authority on esoteric Buddhism.

The airplane project, which Healey dubbed “Sprite” after the Austin-Healey Sprite sports car, failed to thrive. There was no money for it; no workspace was rented, no tools or aluminum purchased. For all I know, it may be that someone had ­whispered to Healey that I had no business doing what I was doing; but I don’t think that would have deterred him. I can’t remember exactly how my participation in the project ended, but at the beginning of the summer I returned to California with a three-view drawing of the airplane in my suitcase. With a few swift pencil strokes I sliced portions off each wing and scribbled onto the outline of the cowling the name of a more powerful engine. Surprisingly, it would take flight, five years later, as the first of my two Melmoths. The languishing Sprite project, in the meantime, was taken over by instructors at Loughborough ­University in Leicestershire, who modified the original design, such as it was, and put students to work building a prototype. But building an airplane is a long, complex process, not easily carried on in the background of already busy lives. A number of “Practavia Sprites,” as they were finally called, did get built and flown, but only years after Melmoth did.

I have amused myself lately by observing that I have been writing for Flying for more than half its life span, and that it was founded in the year of Lindbergh's flight. In other words, more time has elapsed between my first article in Flying and today than had between Lindbergh's flight and my first article.

My mother always complained that I lacked ambition.

Peter Garrison taught himself to use a slide rule and tin snips, built an airplane in his backyard, and flew it to Japan. He began contributing to FLYING in 1968, and he continues to share his columns, "Technicalities" and "Aftermath," with FLYING readers.

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